Matinee idol, author and one of Britain’s biggest stars, Dirk Bogarde was presented endlessly in the press through publicity portraits of varying kinds. From posed portraits, scene stills ‘in character’ and more casual ‘at home’ images, the large collection of images of him held by the BFI National Archive demonstrate the complex nature of film stardom, and in particular how Bogarde’s star image was constructed and shaped throughout his career.

Bogarde, whose centenary we’re marking with a season at BFI Southbank, began his acting career on the stage before moving into film. He became hugely popular as a Rank contract artist in the 1950s, most notably in the comedy Doctor in the House (1954), that year’s most successful British film. Promotional stills were a key element of Rank’s publicity machine, and portrait photography was often a laborious process, relying on perfecting the right kind of image for the actor.

When he first arrived at Rank, Bogarde was dismissed by executive producer Earl St John as unsuitable as a screen actor. “Your head’s too small for the camera, you are too thin and the neck isn’t right,” he was apparently told, yet the huge volume of fan mail he received proved the studio wrong. 

Dirk Bogarde portrait by Cornel Lucas
© J. Arthur Rank Overseas Film Distributors Ltd

No doubt this was partly due to the skilful work of its photographers. This portrait was taken by Cornel Lucas, the leading photographer at Pinewood Studios and Bogarde’s favourite.

While many of Lucas’s portraits of the actor use high-contrast lighting and shots in closeup to focus on his facial features, this portrait is in mid-closeup and depicts Bogarde as a romantic leading man, with a stylish, tidy suit and carefully combed hair.

His expression here offers a mild challenge to the viewer, a hint of humour with intelligence and thoughtfulness beneath, and the portrait is an example of how Bogarde’s star image was presented through the form of the posed image.

Dirk Bogarde in a promotional still for Hunted (1952)
© J. Arthur Rank Organisation Ltd

This promotional still from Hunted (Charles Crichton, 1952) captures a very different side of his screen image. Bogarde was cast as a criminal in several films early in his career, most notably The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden, 1950), but Hunted gave him a much more nuanced role.

As a murderous fugitive on the run, he kidnaps a small boy who witnesses his crime but, against his better judgement, forms a close bond with the child and this changes his destiny.

This image contrasts hugely with the poised still above, and demonstrates the actor’s skill at communicating emotion physically; the hands clasping his face and wrinkled, sweating forehead convey the anguish of his character.

Bogarde’s expressiveness in this photograph shows the work undertaken by stars beyond the actual film shoot and illustrates the different ways in which stars ‘performed’ their character. This image may have been used in pressbooks in order to promote the film through restaging film moments.

Dirk Bogarde photoshoot, c.1955

A number of the Rank photoshoots placed Bogarde in set-ups depicting an outdoor lifestyle. He ran a smallholding in Buckinghamshire at the time and a press sheet listed his hobbies as “walking, riding and squash; animals of all kinds”.

In this shoot, taken around 1955, Bogarde poses in a western-themed set. Relying on pre-existing codes that promote a rugged masculinity, he adopts a somewhat suggestive pose.

This photograph, and publicity images like it, would have been used in fan magazines with accompanying biographical information and used to promote the masculine appeal of Bogarde’s star image.

Dirk Bogarde signing an autograph at the press show for King and Country (1964)
© Photo by J.E. Harvey

Rank sent its stars on long publicity tours round Britain to promote the films. Bogarde recalled them thus: “Red carpets and station masters in top hats… Black ties and eternal dinners with mayors…Day after day from one city to another.”

In the 1960s, he managed to escape the stereotyped roles the studio had confined him to and took on more serious parts in films like Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961) and The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963), which gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility. 

But public appearances were still an important part of an actor’s job. This shot shows him at the press show for King and Country (Joseph Losey, 1964), signing an autograph for a bellboy. Presumably, the boy is holding the star’s drink while he writes, and this photograph is a reminder that Bogarde was still popular with the public. Despite being a private person, he had a warm relationship with his fans, and the grinning boy looks happy to meet the star. 

Dirk Bogarde with Capucine, his co-star in Song Without End (1960)

Despite his long partnership with Anthony Forwood, Dirk Bogarde was romantically linked with several of his co-stars during his career. In particular, the BFI’s stills collection holds a large number of photographs of him and French actress Capucine, who appeared with him in the Hollywood film Song Without End (1960).

In these stills, presumably to promote the biopic of Franz Lizst, they are depicted enjoying a number of activities together such as reading and gardening. These photographs, while carefully staged, go beyond the glamorous star photos of Bogarde to reveal the home-loving side of his personality. Relaxing with a drink in front of a log fire, surrounded by books and personal objects, he appears to be on intimate terms with Capucine, and they certainly shared a similarly cynical view of filmmaking.

These stills would have been used in magazines to give a glimpse behind the scenes, offering a snapshot of the private lives of the stars and showing that they enjoy the same everyday activities that many of the fans do.

Dirk Bogarde at his home in the south of France in 1970
© Rex Features

Bogarde settled in the south of France in 1970 and is here seen resting at his home there, with artworks and books visible in the background, suggesting a person of culture and taste. The house, which is stylish and tidy with decorative floral displays, reveals a space in which Bogarde is able to enjoy time to himself away from the film set, although his screen roles were becoming increasingly infrequent.

As he lounges on the sofa, Bogarde looks relaxed, with the photograph providing a glimpse into his personal space, but with a photographer still present to capture it.

Dirk Bogarde appearing at the National Film Theatre in 1983 as part of the Guardian Lectures series
© BFI National Archive

By 1979, Bogarde announced that he was quitting acting to concentrate on writing, though he did still take on occasional screen roles. A script had to be exceptional to tempt him away from his French idyll and he was scathing about the dirty streets and rudeness he found in London. However, in 1983, he made a trip to England during which he was interviewed by Tony Bilbow at the National Film Theatre for the Guardian Lecture series. 

By now, he had worked with several European arthouse directors, including Luchino Visconti and Alain Resnais, and no doubt felt that these experiences gave him a greater insight into film acting than all the years in commercial cinema.

On the stage in NFT1, he was able to discuss his craft in a more highbrow space, as well as his newfound career as a writer. He had already written three autobiographical works and went on to write a further five, perhaps finding this literary talent a more satisfying outlet for his creativity. Bogarde was a very private person and the more solitary process of writing probably better suited his temperament. 

While earlier photographs capture Bogarde’s star image as it was being constructed and promoted in relation to his film roles, here he had finally taken some control of his public persona. Cultural events such as this provided Bogarde with an opportunity to look back on his career from a point of relative calm.

He only made three more films after this, two for television and his appropriately titled swansong Daddy Nostalgie (Bertrand Tavernier, 1990). He was frank and a little wistful about the nature of stardom: “It is only going to last you for as long as the next leaf falls off that tree. You are seasonal,” he said in an interview at the time.

Further reading

Dirk Bogarde: a class act

By Nick James

Dirk Bogarde: a class act

Victim archive review: Dirk Bogarde fronts a courageous, landmark thriller

Victim archive review: Dirk Bogarde fronts a courageous, landmark thriller

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice

By Margaret Hinxman

“Bogarde is exactly ripe for this role”: on the set of Visconti’s Death in Venice